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Why customer service is the new marketing

Why customer service is the new marketing Mike Hennessy

It is no secret that customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing go hand-in-hand, but few marketers understand the extent that customer service impacts marketing metrics, and how they can leverage it to better satisfy customers. Generating positive word-of-mouth from brand loyalists through exceptional customer service is a tactic that dates back to the days of the general store. But in today's internet-dominated landscape, developing strong online customer service is of utmost importance. It produces a ripple effect that influences traditional marketing metrics -- everything from strengthening customer relationships in real-time on live chat and social media, to building SEO traction and competitor advantage with customers. In essence, online customer service is the new marketing.

Why customer service is the new marketing

Understanding online consumers and catering to their expectations

The storied legends of customer-centric business models created by Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Tony Hsieh of Zappos prove how customer service can contribute to a brand's reputation and profitability. But this type of customer service is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. A recent discussion among customer service experts from Software Advice pointed to the importance of "mirroring customer expectations with customer service," highlighting the example of Walmart's response to negative customer feedback on its in-store service experience. After investing resources in improving the in-store experience, Walmart's customer satisfaction rates increased, yet its revenue reflected no difference. Walmart failed to understand customers' perceptions of its business -- consumers shop at Walmart for low prices and selection, not for the customer service experience.

This lesson is especially important when approaching customer service online. Most consumers are not interested in speaking with or "engaging" with your brand. In the same way that few customers want to be marketed to, few customers want to be bothered with aggressive customer service outreach. Many simply want to conduct research on their own time and quickly find answers to their questions about a company's product or service in order to gather enough information to make a confident decision. This is why the first place they usually seek information is the corporate website -- not the call center or corporate email -- and they prefer it actually. Organizations might be better off first serving and satisfying on a corporate website, then surprising and delighting via additional channels.

This is especially true of companies that provide a utilitarian service, such as telecom or utilities companies. Few consumers want to develop a "relationship" with their cable provider or electric company, and they visit these companies' websites with a task-oriented approach, not to browse for pleasure. So why do organizations employ the same "help" search functions or outdated FAQs that force consumers to browse through thousands of pages of content to find an answer?

In a typical Fortune 500 environment, the combination of electronic documents and website pages can add up to a staggering and unmanageable amount of content. For example, the average number of customer facing web pages managed by companies in the financial services sector averages in excess of 11,000 and in the telecom sector that number climbs to 64,000 web pages. Most organizations have 30,000 to 70,000 pieces of content when realistically only 300 to 700 pieces of content are needed to satisfy both customers and agents.

How simple, cost-effective improvements in online customer service yield big marketing dividends

Marketers need to move beyond the "Google paradigm" of browsing, free their customers from the complexity of their content, and deliver a single answer to a question. If customers spend more time searching for answers rather than finding them, most will abandon shopping carts, escalate to a more expensive channel such as voice or email, or worse, flee to a competitor. Therefore, marketers must put themselves in their customers' shoes and help customers quickly find the information they are looking for with a clear, easy path. Think of how search ads and email marketing directly link to specific website landing pages that present the buying incentive upfront, such as a sale promotion or new offerings; similarly, marketers must direct customers to information about those products or services before they will make the leap to purchase.

Case in point: A recent New York Times article highlighted how a small pool installation business in Virginia became an industry leader when its owner decided to start answering customer questions. He identified common themes in searches and questions, such as pricing specifics or concerns about durability for fiberglass pools that his competitors were not answering. The owner provided direct, clear answers to questions on his blog and soon watched his SEO traffic spike through the roof, outstripping far larger competitors nationwide in search results and review sites, and his business boomed.

While this business owner had success with a blog, a variety of other online tools exist to help customers find answers on their own via self-service. The tools can be deployed via web, mobile, or social, and they are available 24/7 to cater to customers wherever and whenever they choose. Similar to Siri, but for the enterprise, these tools possess sophisticated natural language processing and voice recognition capabilities, can be deployed in hundreds of languages, and can be integrated into existing CRM platforms. They provide a cost-effective complement to the traditional call center and help alleviate the volume of frequently asked questions so that live agents can devote time and energy to questions or issues that require emotional intelligence. Self-service tools can even identify opportunities to cross-sell or upsell within the automated conversation window.

Online customer service will play a role in marketing's drive for big data

The next frontier in marketing will be data-driven, and the information gathered from online self-service transactions can be a lucrative resource to help inform marketing initiatives. By acquiring "voice of the customer" data, marketers can pin down exactly what customers are seeking before, during, and after a marketing promotion, and every department is able to view how well the organization is providing that information. Are customers finding the information they need to feel confident about making a purchase and leaving satisfied? Or are they abandoning the site and walking away from a website in frustration? "Voice of the customer" insights enable organizations to course-correct in real-time if their strategy is not working.

For example, consider a major bank promoting a new credit card launch. Potential customers will visit the bank's corporate website to obtain information about the card's perks and interest rates. If the bank's self-service tools report that customers have a lot of questions about credit score qualifications, the marketing team can identify which customers have questions and from what channel they arrived. They can target these customers with credit score information in the next round of email marketing and also provide this information to a wider audience by highlighting it on the homepage and posting it to Twitter and Facebook.

The lines have blurred between traditional marketing and CRM. Therefore, marketers should consider how to integrate the two so that they both contribute to driving profitable conversations across the entire organization.

Mike Hennessy is vice president of marketing for IntelliResponse.

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"Female customer support operator with headset and smiling" image via Shutterstock.

Mike Hennessy serves as Vice President, Marketing for IntelliResponse, the industry leader in virtual agent software. He oversees all aspects of IntelliResponse corporate marketing, including demand generation, brand strategy, corporate messaging,...

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